Observing the Life Cycle of a Lime Swallowtail

I used to groan in dismay every time I spotted this brown and white slug on one of my citrus plants. One time, I had various lime and lemon seedlings and they were all decimated in a matter of days. I made the mistake of being delighted by the presence of those tiny slugs that turned into an army of chunky, strapping young green caterpillars in the twinkling of an eye.

Since finding out that they’re ravenous little creatures, I started plucking the leaves they’re on and moving them to the other side of the garden. I figured if they could find their way back, then they deserved to feast. However, sometime ago, I read a post in one of my Facebook gardening groups beseeching us to leave these caterpillars alone. They can’t really devour an entire (mature) plant and the butterflies will be an asset in the garden when they emerge.

I could roll with that. That’s why when I found two minuscule brown caterpillars on my Meyer lemon plant, I left them alone to feed. A few days later, they turned green and I got the idea of using them to teach the kids about metamorphosis.

I snipped off the branch they were resting on, still with plenty of leaves for them to feed on, found a big enough jar to temporarily house them in, and relocated them into it. I covered the jar with a doily since I couldn’t find the tulle I knew we had (as usual).

I was going to transform this old Quaker Oats jar into an upside down tomato planter like this one (below) I already have hanging. So far, the tomato plant is thriving (much bigger than that now). The jar also has moss rose growing on top. In the interim, the second jar will serve as as home for caterpillars we want to study.

Something to note is the amount of waste these caterpillars produced. It was A LOT. I thought the quantity was amazing and didn’t really mind; it meant fresh fertilizer every day.

Four days later, one of them went missing. Or so I had initially thought. It turned out that one just pupated ahead of the other. One of the drying leaves on the stem was actually a chrysalis. A day later, the other one followed suit. The chrysalides made a fun little “Find Waldo” kind of game for the kids. They took a bit of time figuring out which ones were the cocoons among the leaves.

We waited about a week for the things to complete their magic inside their cocoons. One morning, I heard a frantic flapping noise as I walked past the jar. One of the butterflies had finally emerged. It seemed ready to fly off, so I got the family for the send off.

What a miracle, right? It transformed from that creepy brown slug-like thing into this pretty butterfly (with a couple more steps in between, of course). Nature really is so amazing. And there are so many life truths in this lesson of metamorphosis.

Anyway, the other butterfly emerged the day after. I think maybe it wasn’t quite ready when we released it because it just flew to the twine we used to hang an old CD (to keep the birds from plucking off cuttings we’re trying to root and beating us to the fruits, especially the chilies.) When it was ready, it flew off.

The kids are sad to learn that their butterflies will only live a week or two, but such was the life of an adult lime butterfly. In any case, the cycle continues. Our butterflies and their comrades must have come back to lay their eggs in our garden because there’s a whole bunch of brown slugs on our citrus plants again. We’re just going to leave them be. I’ve stopped thinking of them as garden pests because their presence just shows that the garden is part of the ecosystem, and, really, having butterflies in the garden is a wonderful treat.

I think next we’ll see what those caterpillars on the pechay are going to turn out to be.

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